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December 6, 1997


Capital Buzz/Virendra Kapoor

Et tu, Brute?

This is about when the sordid political drama was being stretched to its illogical conclusion, irking the populace and worrying the politicos who found their blackmail had backfired.

We, of course, are describing the Congress there. But politicians of all the three major formations were circling each other warily. They also peeked irregularly over their shoulders to ensure that their own colleagues did not do the dirty on them.

Take the Congress first. All of Sitaram Kesri's ambitious rivals -- Arjun Singh, Jitendra Prasada, Vijay Bhaskara Reddy, etc -- protested in chorus when Kesri sought a one-on-one meeting with President K R Narayanan. They feared Kesri would peform his usual prodigal son act and, sniffling into his handkerchief, beg forgiveness.

This was exactly what a senior Congress leader who got wind of Kesri's attempt to see Narayanan said, only half in jest: "You never know, the old man might put his topi at the President's feet, cry loudly and agree to continue to support I K Gujral yet again. We do not want him to keep us in the dark."

Kesri managed to over-ride all those protests and get an audience with Narayanan the day after the Gujral government threw in the towel.

But despite tapping every source we haven't been able to find out if Kesri actually did manage to honk into his cap at the President's feet. But even if he had, it didn't work.

The rats and the sinking ship

Yeah, things aren't fine in the Congress but don't you think the United Front is one united team

Despite all that public display of the stiff upper lip and the boy stood on the sinking ship -- apt analogy? -- act, the group's still showing as many gaps as a sieve.

The biggest problems the UF has to contend with go under the names of the Tamil Maanila Congress (headed by G K Moopanar), Samajwadi Party (of Mulayam Singh Yadav) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (chief: Laloo Prasad Yadav). Laloo actually promised to back Kesri for the prime ministership but only if the President first invited him to form the government.

Ditto the TMC. And Communist Party of India-Marxist general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, famed for his backroom deals, allegedly told Kesri he could rely on the Left's neutrality if the President invited the Congress to form the government.

The Congress nodded agreeably, only seeking that he keep the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam out, just to keep minions and rivals happy.

The UF rejected Surjeet's suggestion to let Congress crony Moopanar become the next prime minister mainly because the CPI-M leader didn't have his numbers right and because the DMK looked askance at the idea of a rival power centre right in the home state.

Saffron suffrage

So the path is clear for the Bharatiya Janata Party, right?

Not necessarily, for the BJP also seems to be riven by internal trouble.

When Kesri pulled the rug the second time from under the UF, party president L K Advani openly argued for an early election. But that was when A B Vajpayee made a bid for power with the help of MPs from other parties, mainly from the splintering Congress. In fact, people close to Advani claim he sabotaged Vajpayee's chances of becoming prime minister again for something longer than 13 days.

"Why would Congress MPs support Vajpayee if Advani openly calls for a snap poll? It is the fear of an election we were exploiting to make them join us," pointed out a prominent Vajpayee aide.

But the cake was taken by the BJP's president-designate, Kushabahu Thakre. Just when Vajpayee was talking of a 're-alignment of forces' (read quitting the Congress, joining the BJP) and staking a claim to form the government, Thakre used Doordarshan to run down the "politics of defections" and to demand the immediate dissolution of the Lok Sabha.

An early election, he austerely informed viewers and possible defectors, was the only way out of the current crisis.

Vajpayee was shocked and upset and Thakre was duly pulled up the next day by senior BJP leaders. We don't know if that bothered him, since he knows he's echoing the views of the mater organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The RSS is already upset with Kalyan Singh's machinations in Uttar Pradesh and doesn't want a repeat performance at the Centre. Of course, they forgot to tell Vajpayee what they wanted him to do. Which, of course, is what caused all the trouble.

The new martinet

S S Gill, the new chief executive of the Prasar Bharati Corporation, is apparently taking a leaf out of the book his earlier boss T N Seshan.

At his very first meeting with the senior staff of DD and AIR, he hauled up his staffers for not serving tea early enough. A petrified aide offered weakly that tea and refreshments were indeed being served, but 15 to 20 minutes after the meeting began.

"How do you know the meeting will last 15 to 20 minutes? I might end it in five minutes. I want tea at the start of the meeting..., " he thundered.

On another level, Gill, who handled the publicity campaign of the Janata Dal in the last election, takes great pains to deny that I K Gujral had anything to do with his current appointment.

Much against the spirit of the much-mauled Constitution, the Gujral government had constituted the Prasar Bharati Board, meant to last full six years, in its dying hours.

The board may last six years but if Gill is around for six months, it will be an achievement. At 72, he was appointed only due to an ordinance which relaxed the age ceiling of 65 for the CEO. And with the BJP and the Congress dead against a Gujral groupie in command of the state television and radio, it is uncertain if a government with either party anywhere in it will okay the ordinance.

This was made clear by a senior Congress leader who fumed that "public property worth over Rs one lakh crores (100 billion) was placed at the disposal of senile old men who have had no idea of the audio- visual media."

Meanwhile, Gill chairs meetings and complains about the service.

Capital Buzz